Most of us have no intercourse with our forty-six chromosomes. They perform their work honourably in intracellular obscurity and we leave them alone. Not so for my friend Manny Karageorgiou: his Chromosomes Numbers 13 and 14 have conspired to mutate. This mutiny came to light late in 2013 when he broke a rib without trying. He simply breathed or coughed or heaved a carton and the rib quietly cracked.
What Manny has tried to do – what he has managed to do every year for 37 years – is to run the 42.195 kilometres of the Melbourne Marathon. Manny is one of a tiny and diminishing band of brothers to achieve this feat. This, their 38th year, they number only eight.
When Manny’s rib cracked he consulted his doctor. In their shared innocence, patient and doctor initially believed they were dealing with a painful area in Manny’s chest, a mere nuisance, an impediment to running: and Manny had a marathon to run. The Marathon would call him. Come October Manny would obey the call and run. Always the Melbourne Marathon, always and only Melbourne. Athens too, has called Manny. Deep in his Greek heart’s core he hears that call. He feels aeonic tremors, he hears echoes across time of Pheidipides at Marathon field. Manny feels, he hears and he yearns to join the runners in Athens; but year after year that marathon clashes with Melbourne’s.
Manny could not run both. Melbourne held him: captive of his love for the Melbourne, of his obligation to its history, of his loyalty to his old comrades, Manny stopped his ears to Athens in October, he turned his back on the Aegean and, busted rib and all, he ran Melbourne. That was last year. For a period of time between the fracturing of the rib and that Sunday in October, my colleagues filled Manny’s body with poisons – thalidomide, dexamethasone, bortezomib – in their attempts to put down the chromosomal mutiny. The short term for that poisoning is high-dose chemotherapy.
When I wrote of Manny’s marathon in 2014, runners from around the world responded in awed respect of the man who’d run thirty-seven Melbournes, and who’d prepared and run it this time with a diseased rib and a poisoned body.
All that was in 2014. Since then Manny has undergone autologous haemopoietic stem-cell transplantation. The chemical savagery of this procedure – doctors have to poison every blood-producing cell in his body – can cure or kill. It did not kill Manny. But the mutiny grumbles on, bones everywhere are eroded, they await their moment of innocent impact or small tumble. One crack and a marathon runner will have run his last.
Manny’s haemato-oncologist, a compassionate and scholarly man, forbids running. He knows too well Manny’s disease. My guess is he has never run a marathon, is innocent of the joy, has never known the intensity of that blood-filled, tear-filled passage through space and time to self-realisation. For his part, Manny knows little about his proliferating mast cells, rogue daughters of his body’s revolution; he knows less of the osteoclasts punching holes in his bones; and nothing of the dysregulation of an oncogene translocated to his perfidious chromosome 14. But Manny knows enough. He understands the doctors do not speak of cure, he accepts the unending medication, he understands the risks of running. But he takes the occasional light run.
I haven’t asked Manny, ‘Do you run to live?’ I sense that the occasional light run is the answer that Manny’s mind or body drives him to. When Manny asks this family doctor, ‘Do you think I can run the marathon again this year?’ – the question I hear is: ‘Am I permitted to live before I die?’ And who am I – captive of my own marathon dreaming – to deny Manny? I decide I will run Melbourne at Manny’s side.
Lining up at the rear of the field of seven thousand dreamers before the Start, Manny implores me for the seven thousandth time: ‘Promise you’ll leave me behind once I’m too slow for you, Howard. I don’t want you to sacrifice your time for me.’ Manny never dreams he’s honouring me. But even before the gun sounds, runners reading the rear of Manny’s shirt salute him: ‘Legend!’ – they cry – ’Thirty-five Melbourne Marathons! Amazing!’ They clap him on the back, not realising Manny’s shirt sells him short by two marathons. Manny does not correct them. The same people spill glory and goodwill onto me in my Spartan’s shirt: ‘Go Spartan!’
A beautiful morning for running. Beneath low cloud a light breeze cheers and cools us as we snake along boulevards and run spirals through Melbourne’s parklands. Manny’s prudent pace suits me. I search for bodily pains to fret about. Nothing: silence from the supposed stress fracture in my left foot, nothing from the torn right calf muscle that I have rested from four weeks. The opposite calf sends alarms, but these are false. Pheidipides Goldenberg has no complaints.
Running half a pace behind Manny I take him in, not as the indoor person I have known, but Manny as runner. His build is not classic Kenyan: Manny is constructed of old materials, a series of chunks assembled one on top of the second. Impressive that he has lugged this unpromising torso through thirty-seven marathons. Projecting below that torso are the legs which are Manny’s secret. Beautifully muscled, elegantly defined beneath skin shining with vitality and sweat, Manny’s legs look decades younger than he as they pump smoothly, rising, descending, devouring distance.
Approaching the thirteen kilometre mark, Manny grinds on steadily, shouting out greetings to figures who come into view and earshot, his comrades, these, fellow members of the hallowed eight. To a man they look old. And calm. The marathon is their familiar foe. It holds no terrors, no surprises for them. Not for the first time, I recall Tennyson’s Ulysses as he looks upon his comrades:
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine…
You and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…
With a cry of a different temper, Manny swerves, his voice joyous. He mounts the kerb, sweeps a good-looking woman into his arms, kisses her face, her hair. She pushes him away a little, looks at him searchingly. Satisfied, she smiles: ‘You look good, darling, you look wonderful. You’re running smoothly.’ The good-looking woman is Manny’s wife Demetra. She plenishes us both with cola and kisses, promising to find us again ten kilometres down the route. Manny releases his wife, takes a step, turns back, grabs Demetra again, crying into her hair, ‘I love you, darling’, and sets off again. I look down and try to deal with a lump that has risen in my throat.
Heading out toward the beach now we are bathed by sun and cooled by the breeze. Aaah, blessed day. The first Kenyan, having turned and now heading homeward, glides past us on air. Shouts of wonder rise from all throats as runners and spectators alike react to this shock of the beautiful.
‘That’s my street there, Howard, Number 141. Please join me and my family at any time from 3.00. Bring your wife. Please.’ I want to join Manny and his family. If I finish in time I’ll certainly be there. Until now, Manny has spoken little while I have spoken more. A quieter person, he places one foot before another, repeatedly, steadily, and runs inwardly. I ask from time to time, ‘How are you going, Manny?’ ‘Not great. Not as good as last year.’ Not feeling great but not complaining either. As we swing out along the beach road and past Café Racer, a bunch of bystanders suddenly flows onto the road in our path and Manny’s face relaxes and falls into a wide smile. Hugs, handshakes, claps on Manny’s back, kisses on Manny’s face from two toothsome young women, and Manny keeps smiling and keeps on running. The interlopers pump sunshine up Manny’s arse and run alongside him. For the best part of an hour we run with the posse and through all that time Manny is smiling.
We come to the turn and the posse whoops and cheers as Manny turns for home. Manny is brother to one, uncle to a couple, second cousin to a few more, godfather to another. The kissing females are godson’s girlfriend and her girlfriend. The brother is shorter than Manny, genial, younger, rounder and pretty fit. He stays the distance for the full hour as do godson and one of the kissers. Others, out of shape or out of condition, fade away and re-join us later. Finally, with farewells, more clasps and shakes and blessings the mob falls away. ‘See you at my place, darling!’ ‘See you after three, Manny!’ The mob loves Manny and he them. Afterwards he tells me, ‘They’re here to meet me every year. Every year at the same spot. They never fail.’ A little later Manny says, ‘Dem and I are taking the whole family to Athens next year…it won’t be at marathon time of course.’
Increasingly I relish Manny’s invitation to join him and the family. These people run to the beat of a familiar drum.
Back on the road, unescorted by Manny’s family, I have a question: ‘Manny, are you Manuel or Emmanuel?’
‘Manuel. They call me Manny. Also Manoli.’
Manny, Manoli – these affectionate diminutives are the aural furnishings of a life. Cushioned at every mention of his name, the man lives his life in relation, in connection, not alone, never – so long as these names are heard – alone. Back on the road, the solid road, returning from my abstractions, back with Manny-the-person I notice him struggling wordlessly. What silent erosion within his skeleton, what deposition of para-proteins in his kidneys, what mischief in his marrow, hampers this champion? Conversely (and most striking), how remarkable the redemptive effect of the loving presence of Manny’s family!
Around the corner and into Fitzroy Street where the crowds thicken and the cheering is a roaring without end, we allow ourselves a fifty-metre walk up the ugly little hillock placed here for the torment of the tiring runner. I reckon we’ve run better than two thirds of our 42.195 kilometres. Manny bursts into joyous shouting: ‘My baby! My baby!’ Emerging from the midst of the thronging cheerers is the adoring Demetra, bearing encouragement and affection and more Coke. And a baby! – their first grandchild. Manny cradles the pink bundle, adores her like a Magus. To me Demetra passes chocolate! I’m dubious about this; I’ve never eaten chocolate in the middle of a run. Will I like it? Will it like me? Too late – it’s melting in my sweaty paw. Now it’s inside me, followed by a bottle of Coke. Supercharged with caffeine and sugar and fluid I am invincible. In Demetra’s arms, holding his pink grandbaby, Manny looks the same, but once around the corner and out of sight, he looks and feels utterly vincible.
Around the corner now and into St Kilda Road, the broad thoroughfare closed to traffic in honour of us marathoners. The sun shines, the day has warmed, everyone who is not running enjoys the balm. Runners enjoy the painful raising of knees, the heavy hurt in the thighs, the weight of weary, weary bodies that started running almost four hours ago. The 32 – kilometre sign tells us there are only ten kilometres to go. Only ten kilometres to go feels to a runner as welcome as only ten more years might sound to a prisoner serving life. The experienced runner knows the second half of a marathon starts at 32K.
We plod in the sunshine. The field has thinned as faster runners leave us behind and others – the broken, the breaking, the bleeding, those limping – fall behind us. Here to one side of us, runs Eeyore, a young woman from England. She runs smoothly ahead then stops, bends forward in apparent pain, and breaks into a slow walk, and soon she is at our side again. Eeyore replies to my clinical enquiries morosely. I encourage her, I pump sunbeams, I tell her she should be proud. I should shut up and allow her to enjoy her misery. Eeyore and Manny and Pheidipides keep company intermittently until the final few hundred metres. Just ahead and to our left runs an aged, arcuate Japanese runner. His age might be anywhere from fifty to seventy. He clings to a line, a crack visible in the road’s surface where one layer of tarmac meets its neighbour. Dourly, silently, mute to my greetings, his spine twisted into a boomerang convex to the left, Japan runs the lines. His speed is no better than ours but I bet he could run all the way to Hokkaido without stopping.
A soft sound issues from the female who runs half a pace ahead on our right. The slight sound recurs – the grunt of a person in pain? – pulls me close. No not a grunt, it’s a moaning, the woman’s lament for her suffering self, her threnody sung for self-comfort. She’s about forty, shapeless, pale, a moving emblem of tortured humanity. The moment brings me back to the Olympic Marathon (I think it was at Barcelona) where a Swiss or French runner, whose name I seem to recall was Dominique Something approached the Finish. No-one who witnessed the sight of this tall, thin woman, faltering and staggering in her final lap of the stadium will forget her in her extremity. The brutally hot day, the merciless steeps of Monjuic in the approach to the stadium, the criminal timing of the event in such heat had all but undone her. She lumbered into view, slowed, stooped, seemed to recover herself and advanced. Time and again she seemed at the point of falling. Officials were seen to move toward her, then to retreat. Appalled viewers on screen and in flesh begged wordlessly for it to end, but Dominique stumbled on. Twenty, thirty metres from the Finish she fell. Officials came to her aid and in so doing ended her chance of completing the Olympic Marathon. It is Dominique whom I hear now as this woman moans.
It is no disrespect to acknowledge that we belong to the dregs of the marathon world: among the select who run marathons, possibly the most resolute and vigorous of people, our sub-group group is the most enfeebled. And all the more honour to us who persist. On we go, pausing for drink every three kilometres, enjoying the excuse to walk twenty, thirty metres. Then up again with weary legs, up and back into the slow steady tread that our heartbeats allow us, that is all our breaths and our body salts and our fluid reserves and our moral reserves can support. We walk, we pause to walk thirty guilt-free walking paces, then on again we run, and on. Manny and I negotiate small contracts: we’ll run without stop to the top of this short rise, then we can coast down the farther side; we’ll run and not stop until we reach the next drink stop, then we’ll reward ourselves with cool fluids and a splash of water; we’ll run now and will not stop until we reach the MCG, and then…
We enter the great stadium side by side. The huge grandstands tower about and above. We insects crawl the margins below. At my left Manny says, ‘It’s magnificent, isn’t it?’ It is, it is indeed. We swing our arms, pumping our reluctant thighs into action, we raise our heads, then hoist ourselves onto our toes for the final 150 metres. Two aging men, one with an intact skeleton, the second much ravaged, swing around the bend. We pass the bent man from Japan: his face, transmogrified, is a rising sun; and Manny and I are sprinting, and sprinting we fall across the Line.
POSTSCRIPT: I have written elsewhere of my inadvertent double entry (and double payment) in this year’s Melbourne Marathon. I duly wore two bibs – each with its distinct number – and with them, both electronic timing chips. I had speculated that Pheidipides Goldenberg might record a finish in both last and second-last places. If you google Melbourne Marathon Results 2015 you will see how closely I anticipated the result. And you’ll find, ahead of me by one second, Manny, Manuel, Manoli Karageorgiou.